Searching for solace

Nevuzaradan understood there was something unique about these people, and normal military techniques could not work. He needed Divine assistance.

Rabbi Dr. Dvir Ginsberg, | updated: 21:39

Judaism Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

When reviewing the various stories found in the Talmud concerning the destruction of the Temple, one is often faced with a simple challenge: what lesson are we supposed to be learning? One such example deals with the impending breach of the walls surrounding Jerusalem by Nevuzaradan and his army. We first are told of a paradigm shift in his military approach (Sanhedrin 97b):

“Raba said: Nebuchadnezzar sent Nebuzaradan three hundred mules laden with iron axes that could break iron,  but they were all shattered on a single gate of Jerusalem, for it is written, And now they attack its gate [lit., 'door'] together: with axes and hammers they smite.  He desired to return, but said, 'I am afraid lest I meet the same fate which befell Sennacherib.’ Thereupon a voice cried out, 'Thou leaper, son of a leaper, leap, Nebuzaradan, for the time has come for the Sanctuary to be destroyed and the Temple burnt.' He had but one axe left, so he went and smote [the gate] with the head thereof, and it opened, as it is written, A man was famous according as he had lifted up axes upon the thick trees.”

What stands out most from this first section would be the failure of Nevuzaradan’s initial military strategy, with God’s message directing one more try.

Once through the gate, the story continues:

“He hewed down [the Jews] as he proceeded, until he reached the Temple. Upon his setting fire thereto, it sought to rise up, but was trodden down from Heaven, as it is written, ‘The Lord hath trodden down the virgin daughter of Judah [the Temple] as in a winepress’.

We see here both the success of the invader, followed by an odd presentation of the physical Temple attempting to escape, only to be “forced” back down by God.

Finally, the story concludes with an admonition:

“His mind was now elated [with his triumph], when a voice came forth from Heaven saying to him, 'Thou hast slain a dead people, thou hast burned a Temple already burned, thou hast ground flour already ground, as it is written, Take the millstones, and grind meal: uncover thy locks, make bare the leg, uncover the thigh, pass over the rivers:'not 'wheat' but meal is said.”

Just when Nevuzaradan was resting on his laurels, God points out that killing those condemned is not worthy of any feeling of euphoria.

While the details of the story require further elucidation, one should ask a simple question concerning this entire episode; namely, what are we supposed to learn from this story? Why is this important? What lesson concerning the destruction of the Temple can we gain from this tale?

Reflecting on the horrors of the destruction of the Temple transcends the murderous rampages and physical destruction that took place. On a deeper level, we are faced with the reality that our relationship with God has been compromised to the highest extent.

The above story offers an insight into a fascinating tension that surrounds that shift in relationship. The Jewish nation was (and is) tasked with the role of the sanctification of God to the world, known as kiddush Hashem. This is accomplished through adherence to the Torah and its commandments, living the proper life, acting like the model nation we are supposed to be. The construction and operation of the Temple represents the greatest expression of this kiddush Hashem. As long as the Temple was in existence, along with the Jewish people fulfilling their mission, the reality of God to the world would be on full display.

Any change from this status quo would immediately produce a profaning of God to the world, chillul Hashem. With the primary objective of humanity centered on coming to a true understanding of God, to remove this medium would obviously create a tremendous impediment to the desired result. Destroying the Temple and decimating the Jewish nation would be counter-productive, so to speak, to the task at hand.

And yet, on the other hand, there is a system of Divine reward and punishment. As presented at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people must adhere to the system given to them. Failure to do so would mean immense punishments, including the loss of the Temple. The equation is simple to understand, while so challenging to internalize. We “merely” need to follow the path of the Torah, and straying would lead to terrible consequences.

We are thus presented with a tension, the Divine mandate to sanctify God clashing with the necessity of implementing Divine punishment when we stray. The above cited story in the Talmud takes up this very tension, using Nevuzaradan’s initial assault as the medium of presentation. Nevuzaradan attempts to assault the city, his initial military tactics an abject failure. God had decided that the Jewish people were going to be slaughtered, the Temple destroyed.

The concept of the Temple trying to escape encapsulates this tension. The idea of a destruction of that whose function was to produce kiddush Hashem seemed absurd. God, though, would not allow the Temple to continue to exist if the Jewish people strayed so far off the path.

Concurrently, the message could not be that humanity was responsible for “erasing” God from the world. Nevuzaradan was the messenger, not the catalyst. The axes failed to accomplish any objective. Nevuzaradan understood there was something unique about these people, and normal military techniques could not work. That being the case, how could he pursue his initial objective? God intervenes, and Nevuzaradan understands that only with Divine assistance could he fulfill his objectives.

What was the idea of Nevuzaradan’s elation and subsequent admonition? It could be he saw God’s role as an additional weapon in his arsenal. Leading his army forward, Nevuzaradan understood he could not defeat the enemy alone. God would be his sidearm, his weapon to help bring about the destruction of the Temple. When he completed the job, while acknowledging the assistance provided, he would see himself as the primary person responsible for bringing about the demise of the Jewish nation. God now pulls Nevuzaradan from his delusional state, explaining that he was no more than a facilitator.

This final message is where we can find a modicum of solace. While God “permits” the profaning of His name to take place, those who bring about this result can never sense they are in truth responsible for the outome. But there is another idea we can extrapolate from this. Nevuzaradan at least considered his victory as a change in the world order. When a nation is defeated in war and their seat of worship destroyed, it would be natural to assume that nation would no longer ever occupy its previous heights. The story of the Jewish nation does not follow the narrative of others. We have a unique relationship with God, and while our ideological effect on the world is compromised, we must view it as a momentary lapse. Our defeat cannot ever mean an intrinsic change in who we are as a people. Even as our enemies rejoice in our demise, we can at least take consolation from the fact that the we will one day reclaim our role and fulfill the mission God laid out for us with the giving of the Torah. As we reflect on the destruction of the Temple, we must return to the right path and strive to actualize who we are supposed to be.